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After U.S. Issues Heightened Alert, Jews Try to Go About Their Business

February 10, 2003
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David Waldner isn’t going to let new warnings that terrorists might be targeting U.S. Jewish sites change his routine.

“I’m not going to stop what I’m doing because someone said, ‘It’s orange today,’ ” Waldner said Sunday as his 21- month-old son, Dylan, used a stair handrail as a jungle gym outside the District of Columbia’s Jewish Community Center.

Waldner’s use of the word “orange” referred to the increased state of alert announced by the U.S. government over the weekend.

Waldner’s sentiment was shared by other members of Washington’s Jewish community interviewed at the JCC this week: They said they would live their lives as before despite the upgraded alerts.

In New York, meanwhile, the state of alert was all too visible. Masked anti-terror police with machine guns stood guard Saturday outside the city’s Temple Emanu-El.

Newsweek reported that FBI officials began contacting Jewish leaders last Friday to warn them to be especially vigilant and to enhance security at Sabbath services and other weekend events, law enforcement sources said.

State and local police also were asked to provide extra patrols for Jewish events.

Officials said the new information warned about the possibility of attacks by Al-Qaida on synagogues, Jewish community centers, Jewish or Jewish-owned hospitals, youth groups, hotels and resorts.

Officials said they are unusually worried both because of recent electronic intercepts that suggest an imminent attack as well as the sheer volume of reports that have been coming in mentioning Jewish targets.

“This is a full-court press,” one FBI official told the magazine about the bureau’s sudden outreach to Jewish groups. “There’s real anxiety about this.”

In Washington, officials at several Jewish sites said security has been a particular priority since Sept. 11. The government’s latest announcement did not prompt specific actions or keep people away, the officials said.

“We’ve been on constant high security,” said Alan Caro, assistant executive director of the District of Columbia’s Jewish Community Center.

Since Sept. 11, members of the JCC have had to show identification to enter, and additional security staffers were hired for the building. In addition, local police tried to beef up their patrols around the center.

But increased security did not stop numerous people from coming to the JCC, for classes or to use the fitness facilities.

“I think not only is the threat speculative, no one with a modicum of self-respect would change their patterns of behavior to accommodate terrorists,” said Steven Aftergood, who came to the JCC on Sunday for a Hebrew class.

Several people said they were skeptical about the announcement, saying it could be motivated by a need to increase support for U.S. military action against Iraq.

“There’s war-mongering, and this could very well be a part of that,” said Sue Roemer, cantor emeritus at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Md.

Others suggested that law enforcement is making the warnings public to protect themselves from liability if a terrorist attack were to occur.

The Washington area has been vigilant since the Sept. 11 attacks, and it became even more security conscious after last fall’s sniper spree that terrorized the local community.

At Adas Israel, a Conservative synagogue and one of Washington’s Jewish landmarks, each family was charged $100 to pay for increased security costs.

Now, the synagogue has several entrances closed and a full-time security staff. Large events are also coordinated with the city’s police department.

One Jewish organization is planning a major conference next week in Washington that was to include outdoor events at Jewish landmarks. Organizers said they would coordinate with law enforcement before proceeding.

“If they suggest we should move the event, we’ll move it,” said one organizers, who asked that his name and the organization name remain anonymous for security reasons. “Otherwise, we’re planning to go forward.”

The alert came as the Anti-Defamation League was holding its annual National Executive Committee meeting in Palm Beach, Fla.

Leaders received calls from the FBI, informing them of the heightened alert and asking them to circulate the information to other Jewish organizations.

Rumors began spreading quickly that the hotel could be a target because it was hosting a major Jewish conference and because an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya was the site of a terrorist attack in November that killed 14 people, including three Israelis.

“There’s no specific indication that Jewish sites have been targeted,” said the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, “but the fact that they reached out to us means that somewhere, someone felt that there was a specific need to reach out to the Jewish community.”

Foxman added that because Jewish leaders were briefed in the past when there was a specific threat to the community, many are assuming law enforcement officials may have similar information this time around.

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